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Unable to Fly Due to Medical Reasons: Avoid Cancellation Fees with a Doctor’s Note

When you’re ill, cancellation fees add insult to injury. But in some cases, they can be avoided.

I consider myself a nonrefundable ticket sort of person. There are very few circumstances in which I’m willing to shell out significantly more to book a more flexible ticket, and until recently I had never been unable to fly due to medical reasons. The cost is simply too high. I’d rather cross my fingers and hope no complicating factors arise. And usually, that works.

But sometimes, it doesn’t. Like the time I got very ill a few days before a trip, and as the illness progressed, it became clear that I would be unable to fly due to illness. I could barely stand, let alone traipse halfway across the globe. I needed to cancel, but I wanted to avoid a stiff penalty if at all possible.

Unable to Fly Due to Medical Reasons? Get a Letter from a Doctor

Enter the doctor’s note. The cost to cancel my ticket would be $200, but the airline was among those that would waive the fee if I could provide a doctor’s note.

I had the fortune/misfortune of a trip to the emergency room and multiple consultations with two different doctors, so I had a paper trail to back up my claim that I was unable to fly due to illness. The airline asked for a doctor’s note, on the doctor’s letterhead, which included some kind of statement regarding my inability to fly for medical reasons plus my name and confirmation number.

Because of some tight timing (and the fact that I wasn’t up to making all those phone calls in one day), I first had to cancel the flight and incur the $200 fee, then ask the doctor to fax a note to the airline confirming I was unable to fly due to medical reasons, at which point the $200 was credited back to my account. In my case, the money now sits as credits to be used on a future flight, but since I plan on traveling with the airline in the next year, that’s just fine with me.

How to Ask for a Cancellation Fee Waiver with a Doctor’s Note

If you need to cancel a flight due to a medical reason and are hoping to avoid cancellation fees:

  • Read the fine print or contact your airline to assess whether or not a documented medical emergency is enough reason to waive a cancellation fee.
  • Be in touch with your doctor so that he or she can vouch for you.
  • Cancel more than 24 hours in advance.
  • Ask your doctor (or a nurse or someone at the front desk) politely, and make it as easy for them as possible to provide a doctor’s note.
  • Provide the airline with as much information as possible about your medical condition, ask nicely, and follow up to check on the process of your cancellation fee waiver claim.

It’s also worth mentioning that Southwest is the only U.S. airline that doesn’t charge cancellation fees.

How to Know If You’re Too Sick to Fly

If you’re wondering if you’re too ill to fly, you’re probably too ill to fly. Need more concrete advice? The CDC has answers: Its Before You Travel Tips page is packed with specific advice about symptoms and special considerations. For instance, if you have a temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, a sinus infection, or any disease (including flu) that can spread easily, you should cancel your travel plans. At that point, you can reach out to the airline and reach out to your doctor to see what you can do about trying to get that cancellation fee waived.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2013. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

By Christine Sarkis

There's a 95 percent chance Senior Editor Christine Sarkis is thinking about travel right now. Follow her on Instagram @postcartography and Twitter @ChristineSarkis.

Christine Sarkis is an SATW-award-winning journalist and executive editor at SmarterTravel. Her stories have also appeared on USA Today, Conde Nast Traveler, Huffington Post, and Business Insider. Her advice has been featured in dozens of print and online publications including The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, and People magazine. She has also shared travel tips on television and radio shows including Good Morning America, Marketplace, and Here & Now. Her work has been published in the anthologies Spain from a Backpack and The Best Women's Travel Writing 2008. She is currently working on a travel memoir.

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Email Christine Sarkis at editor@smartertravel.com.

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